Compelling family story earns heritage award

At the Regional Heritage Fair in Saskatoon, Grayce McNeil was asked to prepare a video of her winning project for the national Young Citizen program.

Grayce McNeil was excited to win the Historical Thinking Award at the Provincial Heritage Fair in Regina, which took place May 24 and 25. It started with her participation in the first-ever Heritage Fair at the Warman Community Middle School (WCMS), conducted by Grade 7 teacher Clark Bymoen.

Students could work with a partner or on their own. Grayce chose to work on her own and tell the compelling story of her family history, with origins in Nazi Germany. Her project was selected by WCMS to go to regionals in Saskatoon where 135 students presented their projects. Subsequently, she was one of 15 students from around the province to be chosen for provincials, where she rose to the top.

“I was really proud because it was about my family history,” she said. “My project was about how my Opa escaped from the Nazis during World War II and then how he emigrated to Canada with his family.” She chose the project to learn more about her own history and also to draw attention to a significant part of world history.

Her teacher, Mr. Bymoen, was available for guidance, and Saskatchewan Heritage has a comprehensive website detailing all the requirements for the project. But Bymoen said Grayce was very self-motivated and didn’t need much guidance.

“I’m super proud of her. She’s a very impressive young woman,” he said. “It was so nice to see somebody get so interested in their family’s history and to put it together in such a nice project. You could just see her passion for it, and it made me feel really proud of her as her teacher. I’m really happy she did so well.”  

Grayce’s great grandfather or grote-opa showed a lot of ingenuity and courage after he was taken by the Germans from the Netherlands in 1942 at age 18. He was placed in a work camp where he remained for three years, doing some work in munitions.

“He obviously didn’t like the Germans because of the cruelty they were showing, so he decided to make the guns so they didn’t really shoot or so the bullets didn’t really fit in the guns properly. But he got put into a cell for sabotage for 10 days.”

Grayce McNeil won the Historical Thinking Award at the Provincial Heritage Fair in Regina

Grote opa managed to escape from that prison and his story of survival continued to the day in June 1953 when he and his young wife and child emigrated to Canada. They arrived at Pier 21 in Halifax and ultimately settled in Edmonton.

Grayce’s project includes love letters from her great grandfather, who passed away in 1994, to her 90-year-old grote oma who lives in Edmonton. It also includes a ring her grote opa made from a piece of metal from an American plane he came across. The ring isn’t that pretty, she says, but it has a beautiful meaning. “There is a rising sun engraved on it which represents a new day.”

Grayce was one of eight contestants from regionals asked to create a video of their project and submit it to the Heritage Saskatchewan Young Citizens program by June 4. There are a total of 18 contestants from Saskatchewan and around 200 from across Canada.

The national program will generate 26 young finalists from across the country: 13 will be chosen by popular vote and the remaining 13 will be selected by a panel of judges. Voting opens on June 12 and closes July 7. Grayce and her family and friends will be working to line up votes through social media and online.

The 26 winners will receive a trip to Ottawa in the fall, where they will attend the Canada’s History Youth Forum.

Grayce said her grote opa was very smart and brave. “He could have just given up at any moment. He could have just let the Germans tell him what to do. He could have gotten killed really easily. He never gave up. He was strong and raised a beautiful family in Edmonton.”

Grayce owes her very existence to this tenacious man. Telling his story became a beautiful quest for this very accomplished 12-year-old.